Hometown Hero: Gil Gleason gives a half-century to the Oakland Community Orchestra
By Lou Fancher Corespondent Contra Costa Times
Viewing the first 30 years of Gil Gleason's life, it would be impossible to have predicted where he would be in 2014.
Growing up in 1940s New Jersey and learning to play violin, Gleason thought music was an occupation for a lady, not a suitable profession for a man. But on a recent day, seated near a grand piano and the floor-to-ceiling windowed walls of his Orinda home's spacious music salon, he was planning the playbill for a May 9 concert marking his half-century as conductor of the Oakland Community Orchestra.
The 81-year-old violinist, who retired from the Oakland East Bay Symphony in 1999 after 33 years, has taught violin and led the community orchestra for five decades.
Setting aside his violin after high school, Gleason's up-and-down college career, interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army, led to a philosophy degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and a bare-bones existence working on a Ford assembly line. He moved to California in 1960, teaching tennis, playing bridge and billiards for cash and being "mostly flat-out broke," Gleason said.
Seeking direction, he joined the St. Andrew Episcopal Church choir in San Bruno, commuting from North Berkeley to play violin. Encouraged by friends and family to audition for a professional orchestra, Gleason remembers feeling peace and joy when he decided, "Heck, I'll try it."
Fifty years after winning that seat with the Oakland-based symphony and stepping in to lead amateur musicians during his off-hours, Gleason is still right at home. Every Friday, he stands on the podium, rehearsing the 46-member community orchestra he helped build from an unlikely group of six musicians. Funded by the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation, the nonprofessional group plays primarily at retirement centers and Oakland elementary schools.
"The rehearsal space has changed several times, but not the conductor," says concert mistress Priscilla Magee. At 90, she's been with the orchestra for long enough to call Gleason "Maestro" and says, "Anybody who's conducted an orchestra for 50 years must be a hero. He gets the best out of us. One day, he asked, 'Who will take our place?' I hadn't given it a thought, so I guess for us and for people for whom we perform, music is a lifesaver."
For Gleason and his wife Karen, also a violinist, music has meant connection -- but not a theme song for love at first sight.
"We didn't hit if off," she recalls, about their first meeting at the San Bruno church. "We used to argue about how to bow. I thought he was arrogant and uppity." Eventually, after he asked her to join the community orchestra and "was on his best behavior," friendship deepened into love. Married since 1966, they have three children and five grandkids.
Although Gleason says music lessons "didn't take" with his children, there's no shortage of students who've come to his home for instruction. (A bit of a joker, he calls the lessons "teaching people to create sound by pulling the tail of a horse over the stomach of a sheep.") While Gleason has raised the stock of young, local talent, it's arguably his adult students who have benefited most from his tutelage.
Rossmoor resident Judy Laughlin, 74, took up the violin at age 40. "I credit the fact that after some years with him, I was able to play in community orchestras," she says. Despite wanting to quit several times, she says Gleason's optimistic spirit and "wonderful musicianship" always "pulled her beyond" her discouragement.
Cellist Ariel Witbeck was never a student, but formed a trio with Gleason after moving to Danville in 1966. Later, she played and guest-conducted with the orchestra, and the two colleagues often shared information about young students. Performing under his baton, she says the shoulder surgeries he's had that limit his arm movements are inconsequential.
"It doesn't matter, because he's an excellent violinist. He's no slouch," she says. And then she teases, "Sometimes he nitpicks, stopping to fix things, but he's a true leader."
Gleason remembers clamping his violin to the breast plate of the body cast he wore for 21 years, the consequence of various rotary cuff, pancreatic, open heart and neck surgeries in his past.
Gleason says he's watched for 50 years as many city-supported arts programs in Oakland have suffered cuts, and as the Oakland Community Orchestra has remained pretty much unscathed. He's fought to preserve the orchestra, promoting its service to seniors, adding performances to underserved schools and fighting suggestions to become self-supporting by charging membership dues.
"Some of our members can't afford a membership. If the city doesn't support it, it won't happen," he says.
Gleason plans to retire only when a recently organized advisory committee finds a replacement. "It's not a big job, but it's a big part of my life. I can't imagine just giving it up," he says. When he finally lays down his baton, he'll continue his hobbies: collecting political memorabilia (he has collections for every U.S. president since 1976, plus both Roosevelts), teaching private lessons and listening to music. He says teaching is physical and spiritual enjoyment.
And music? "Music is soul," he declares. "It's the utmost beauty, apart from love itself. To hear it is Heaven on Earth."